An Afro-Asian Future

I had lunch yesterday with a friend who represents the future. Or more accurately, his family is the future. He is Jamaican and Black; his wife is Asian, specifically Korean. Their children are Afro-Asian, or, in the vernacular, “Blasian."

Even as our paradigm of race changes from literally black and white, we still prefer simple, abstract boxes over the complex, confusing reality. That isn’t how the world looks though. Or how it works.

We describe conflict, for example, between Blacks and Asians, including violent attacks. A generation ago, it was African American customers of Asian immigrant small businesses; the former felt dissed, the latter threatened. Before the internet, an early viral image that made people of all backgrounds aware of the dynamics depicted the 1992 Los Angeles riots/uprising (the choice of word revealing visceral sympathies): against presumably black looters, Korean merchants were armed and barricaded.

Yet the “hapa” movement celebrates mixed ancestry. A Hawaiian term that was once derogatory, “hapa” has been appropriated. Now instead of being asked “what are you?” or “which are you more of?,” people who are proud to transcend our prejudices are claiming their own identity. They always had it, but they previously were forced to deny it. Or worse they were made to feel ashamed, even within their own extended families.

The patterns also show diversity within diversity. Intermarriage varies. The rates are not the same, nor random. 

The likelihood of intermarriage changes by race and gender. Among African Americans, men are much more likely to marry outside their race than women; among Asian Americans, the opposite is the case. Matching even depends on ethnicity. A majority of Japanese Americans marry people of a different background, as do Filipino Americans. Japanese Americans are predominantly native-born, unlike the five other most populous Asian American groups, while Filipino Americans come from a former colony that has a syncretic culture.

Ironically, intermarriage has its own standard. White-Asian intermarriage — white men, Asian women — is approved of. Other combinations less so. That was true under the law. Before reforms, white American man could confer his citizenship on an Asian woman (such as a “war bride”), but an Asian man was not only barred from naturalizing but would cause a white American woman who wed him to lose her citizenship under the “Married Women's Independent Nationality Act.”

My friend, his wife, and their children are not alone. Another acquaintance, Paula Madison, a retired media executive, produced a documentary about her search for her grandfather. She and her siblings had a lifetime journey from Harlem to China. As children, they were not the same as their schoolmates; their mother could not quite pass as African American. But then they were the only black faces at the family reunion with her Hakka clan — a distinct population within Southern China, who numbered disproportionately among the adventuresome migrants out into the world. Her grandfather had left behind his family, confounding our contemporary stereotypes about who displays responsibility.

Whole communities develop — and they also disappear. A century ago in California, Punjabi men wed Mexican women. Due to immigration restrictions, they had no choice. Although laws prohibited miscegenation, enforcement was lax as to people of color who were joining people of color. The resulting South Asian-Hispanic offspring numbered in the hundreds. They were normal among themselves if an impossibility anywhere else.

None of this is new. It is the optimism that is novel. 

My friend and his wife are private people. They did not set out to be symbols. As he and I chatted about his career choices, he mentioned that there are places even today, where they would attract stares. Our progress could be measured by what we notice; there will come a moment, not too far off, when an Afro-Asian couple will be able to walk down the street, with kids in tow, without prompting any remark.

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